Ford’s Challenger: 5 Questions With Futurist Sheryl Connelly

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Ford Central Michigan train station in Detroit June 2018

Ford has looked into its crystal ball and identified trends that have led to two momentous decisions for the company: returning to Detroit and phasing out passenger cars and sedans. Sifting through the mountain of data to identify actionable insights is the bailiwick of Sheryl Connelly, Ford’s global futurist.

While it’s a grand title, Connelly is quick to point out that she doesn’t actually use a crystal ball, of course. What she does do is make sense of demographic and other types of data for the Ford Motor Company, including publishing an annual report of consumer trends. The quant and qual analyst and strategist is attuned to the predilections and preferences of boomers, millennials and Generation Z, among her other areas of interest.

For example, an increased desire to work and live in city centers, as well as a corporate commitment to nurture innovation and create opportunities, has led Ford to purchase the abandoned Michigan Central train station in Detroit with the goal of turning it into a campus for technologists working on the future of mobility.

At the same time, millennials’ desire to simplify their lives and get away to the outdoors inspired Ford’s recent decision to phase out nearly all of its passenger cars—the Mustang being a notable exception—and double down on roomier and more versatile SUVs.

Sheryl Connelly - Ford

A big part of Connelly’s job involves challenging conventional wisdom, such as the notion that millennials are dramatically different in terms of values from their baby boomer parents.

“There are important differences between the generations,” Connelly (right) told brandchannel, “but these two generations are more alike than any of the other five generations in North America right now: The Silent or Greatest Generation, Boomers, Gen Xers, Gen Y [or millennials] then Gen Z. Put all five of those next to each other and line them up side by side, [millennials and boomers] look most similar.”

Connelly shares more insights about taking the measure of millennials, customer experience and more in a Q&A:

It wasn’t long ago that automakers worried that millennials didn’t seem to care about getting a driver’s license, much less driving or buying a vehicle. Now, Ford can hardly build enough big new Expedition SUVs to satisfy the demands of growing millennial families. What’s going on?

For millennials, finding time to get their license was an inconvenience and U.S. states had changed the way driver’s ed had gone through. In the past, states had a series of phased educational requirements offering driver’s ed as a free course. Then it became more arduous, and parents had to pay several hundred dollars go get their kids driver’s ed.

Also, during the Great Recession, more families were hesitant to add the cost of another driver, such as a car and insurance. At the same time, millennials were the first generation to grow up with smartphone technology which helped them transcend time and space.

Then get to what the car means to them. In the Sixties and Seventies, getting your first car was a milestone to adulthood, a gateway purchase to say, “I’ve arrived.” What replaced that for millennials was the cellphone, and that happened as an event way before they turned 16.

So why is Ford now shifting to more SUVs?

A lot of it is that SUVs are the vehicles millennials grew up in, that they are comfortable with. Those are vehicles from their childhood. One of the other distinct differences is millennials are going to buy that vehicle for the next decade. They don’t know what the decade holds for them. Utility is of paramount importance. Can this vehicle grow with me and take me through a couple different life stages?

Speaking of smartphones, what does customer experience mean in this era of sharing and connectivity?

Lincoln is doing some really interesting things recognizing that when you’re in the luxury space, it’s about lifestyle. We have a partnership with Clear at airports for getting customers through security quickly. I was in New York City and used Clear and the line for TSA was shockingly long, but there was no one in line for TSA Clear. It’s effective. And one of the things that went into that partnership is our recognition that time is the ultimate luxury, so getting to whiz through that line was an extraordinary experience.

What trends should automakers—or other sectors—be paying attention to that may be under the radar now?

People want meaning and purpose. Retail therapy gave them a lift for a while, but now there’s the opportunity for brands to tell the stories behind their products, or the experience of buying those products, and tap into that.

Should people be relying on brands to give them meaning and purpose?

Well, brands with a strong sense of identity can be shorthand for your values.

Hear more from Connelly in a recent conversation with InStyle:


Get more insights in our Q&A series.

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